Three questions about the history of children’s books

It is necessary to distinguish what are called “children’s books” from those that form a “children’s and youth literature”. Centuries will pass from the first to the second, and this literature will continue to change. Let’s set some milestones in this complex story, which will forgive us for simplifying in this way.

The first texts that are put into the hands of children are school “tools”, textbooks, extracts from literary works … This has existed since antiquity. Children are also fed an oral literature of mythological tales and fables. The Middle Ages will produce the same type of texts that will become books, first handwritten, then printed.



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The first book written for a 15-year-old boy and his younger brother was written between 841 and 843 in Uzès by Dhuoda, Duchess of Septimania, entitled Handbook for my son (translation by Pierre Riché, 1975). This mother wrote this book to make her son a perfect Christian aristocrat: it is a textbook of civic and religious education. From the XIIIi century, there will also be didactic works written by lay people for their children, and religious books are clearly designed for them: “Hours for girls” or “for boys”, as well as a “children’s psalter”.

When does children’s literature appear?

In the fiction that produces a morality to be instilled in childhood, the role of Aesop’s fables should be highlighted. From the XVi century, we printed in small format, with large characters and woodcuts, a text translated into French, for a popular reader and a children’s audience, which was not yet the sole purpose of these early publishers. Note, however, an incunabula printed in Lyon in 1484 bearing marks of appropriation by a child, who drew and commented on the book.

The Wolf and the Fox, Aesop’s Fables, preceded by his life, translated from Latin into French by Brother Julien of the Augustinians of Lyons, 1484.
BNF, Gallica, Provided by the author

In the XVIi and XVIIi For centuries, the repertoire of children’s, school, religious, moral, and fiction books has continued to expand until the advent of youth literature.

The birth of this literature took place in France in two stages, at the end of the 17th centuryi and in the middle of the 18th centuryi century. We will only mention the first stage, which prefigures children’s literature on princely education and literary games in the salons, while the second will make a wide dissemination of children’s books by authors increasingly specialized in writing for young audiences.

Two names symbolize the first stage: Fénelon and Perrault. François de Salignac de la Motte Fénelon (1651-1715) published his in 1687 Treatise on the education of girlsin which he advises, so that the children want to learn to read, a

“Tell them entertaining things about a book in their presence […]. Give them a well-bound book, gilded even on the edge, with beautiful pictures and well-formed characters. Everything that delights the imagination facilitates the study: try to choose a book full of short and wonderful stories […] “.

The Adventures of Telemachus of Fenelon decorated with engraved figures according to the designs of C. Monnet, the king’s painter, by Jean Baptiste Tilliard.
INHA, Augustin de Saint-Aubin / Wikimedia

In 1689, he became tutor to the seven-year-old Duke of Burgundy and his brothers, the six-year-old Duke of Anjou and the three-year-old Duke of Berry, grandchildren of Louis XIV. He then wrote age-appropriate literature for them. For the little ones he writes stories and fables of which Trip to the island of pleasures (Faules, VIII), one of the archetypes of tales about gluttony, with an island made of sugar, mountains of compote and rivers of syrup and the sleeper is awakened at night by the earth vomiting “rays of boiling sparkling chocolate”.

He then recounts the life of philosophers (Summary of the lives of ancient philosophers) and writes imaginary interviews between great men (Dialogues of the dead) teaching history and morals, and ends with the first novel for teenagers in our literature, the The Adventures of Telemachus (1699). He chose fiction to gently seduce his student, thus eluding the proud and irascible character of the Duke of Burgundy. If the Télémaque was a considerable bookstore success, it is clear that this construction of children’s and young people’s literature is at first situated in a princely, private education.

Illustration of the Tales of my Mere l’Oye, dating from 1695.
Morgan Library / Wikimedia

Charles Perrault records his Tales of the Mother Goose (1697) in a literary salon game, for adults, as Madame d’Aulnoy does in her collections of 1697 and 1698. However, these two authors officially show a desire to reach a children’s audience. Perrault, in his 1695 preface, advises parents to wrap solid truths “in pleasing narratives proportioned to the weakness of their age.” He shows that he has carefully observed the reactions of the children’s audience.

As for Madame d’Aulnoy, to make herself available to children, she uses a style that has often been described as silly and childish. But the tales of Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy have effectively become part of children’s literary heritage.

Who are the first children’s publishers?

From the middle of the XVIIIi century, books are actually written for children by authors and booksellers in the process of specialization. It is about offering children’s fiction that is his literature and, therefore, children’s characters are staged by new authors: Madame Leprince de Beaumont, Madame d’Épinay, Madame de Genlis, Arnauld Berquin.

In fifty years, much progress has been made in the quality of children’s observation, in their reflections on their psychology and on their education. This leads to a publishing fever for publishing children’s books in abundance, as noted in 1787 at the Leipzig fair by a German professor, LF Gedike.

But this is not enough to create great specialized publishers. To do this we must wait for the first third of the nineteenth century.i century, with two publishers specializing in children’s books and also authors, Pierre Blanchard (1772-1856) and Alexis Blaise Eymery (1774-1854). However, its economic and industrial base is still quite weak and only a little later the major publishers are leaving their mark on the children’s book market.

Rouen, the book and the child from 1700 to 1900Armelle Sentilhes.
ENS Editions

While a new literature for young people was being invented in the 1830s, the Guizot Act of 28 June 1833 increased schooling and, therefore, children’s reading. To this growing demand for children’s books, there is, first of all, an “industrial” response, which is mainly due to the Catholic provincial publishing houses, some of which already existed in the Old Regime (Barbou in Limoges, Mame in Tours , Lefort in Lille, etc.). Mégard in Rouen, Périsse in Lyon, Aubanel in Avignon, Douladoure in Toulouse) or appeared in the first third of 19i century (Ardant in Limoges, 1804, Lehuby in Paris succeeding Blanchard in 1833).

These houses create Libraries for young people, employ thousands of workers, are equipped with modern machines and concentrate all tasks: printing, binding, illustration. Mame had 1,500 workers in 1855 and bound 10 to 15,000 volumes a day. Megard produced six million volumes during the Second Empire, while Mame produced as many per year. In 1862 six provincial publishers, Megard, Barbou, Ardant, Périsse, Mame, and Lefort, published nearly ten million volumes. Parisian houses do not have this type of production, but they are more innovative in the field of literary quality and the collections created.

Louis Hachette creates the newspaper Children’s Week in 1857 and the Bibliothèque rose illustrée in 1858. Hetzel published the first issue of the Education and leisure shop in 1864. The great names of children’s literature published in Paris, the Comtesse de Ségur with Hachette, Jules Verne with Hetzel and many others. This distortion between the provincial publishing world and that of Paris is accompanied by debates about what a children’s book should be.

Were these early children’s books meant to entertain or educate children?

Discussions about children’s books depend on ideological positions and different views of childhood. For Catholic publishers, it is a matter of educating young people in Christian values ​​according to a vision of passive childhood and youth that must be saved by educating them through the teaching and readings approved by the episcopate.



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Pierre Jules Hetzel proclaims his contempt for this kind of industrial literature, with authors paid for by the amount of books, and works he considers “tasteless and unfeeling, these flat and flat books, these stupid books, I mean the word.” , to whom it seems reserved the undeserved privilege of being the first to speak of what is best, most subtle, and most delicate in the world, to the imagination and heart of children “(Prologue to Louis Regensburg, Children’s comedyHetzel, 1860).

Children’s week, Miss Lili at the Tuileries.
Lorenz Frølich / Wikimedia

On his Stahl’s albums, Hetzel stages young children illustrated with tender drawings of Frölich and, with the publication of Jules Verne, offers teenagers the aroma of adventure and exotic territories. For her part, Hachette, with the publication of the Countess of Ségur, does not make a representation of children who are always good and pious, and even goes so far as to offer her young readers terrible children, those of whose exploits Trim speaks to us with. Bertall’s illustrations, in albums for children aged three to six. So we started to get interested in the younger ones.

And we come to design books for “babies” for which a dedicated offering extends to the 1860s, knowing that the borrowed English term “Baby” refers to young children, not babies. We see attempts at periodicals for Babies between 1862 and 1878, and the publisher Théodore Lefevre, who writes under the pseudonym Madame Doudet, publishes a “Bibliothèque de Bébé”, with twenty titles between 1871 and 1900, which is addressed to four-year-olds. at eight o’clock. We are also beginning to use the expression “books for young children”, which will become the majority after the First World War. But it is only in the second half of the twentieth centuryi century that “real” babies will be entitled to their books.

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